Taxpayers saved money on travel during the pandemic as Congress slashed foreign spending, but those trips are quickly coming back.
In recent days, senators and congressmen have left for several stops in Germany, India, the United Arab Emirates and Africa.
First-class commercial airfare and accommodations for official travel of Congressional representatives and their staff are covered by the Treasury on a virtually unlimited basis. These bills reached approximately $1.3 million in fiscal 2021, but returned to approximately $15 million last year.
This does not take into account the hundreds of trips the military provides transportation for. The cost of using military aircraft is never disclosed.
Members of Congress take trips often derided as junkets, meet with foreign officials, visit U.S. military installations, and tour foreign projects funded by the U.S. government. Congress does not have to approve international travel spending, and there are no dollar limits set per day, per trip, per office, or per person.
Craig Holman, a political lobbyist for consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said taxpayer-funded tours are less problematic than privately-sponsored tours, but they still lack basic transparency. He said that
“Obviously last year’s $15 million is not the full picture because of the undisclosed use of military travel, and there’s been a general lack of disclosure,” Holman said. We don’t really know if it’s being used.”
Which Travel and Congress Members Earned the Biggest Tabs?
Congressional committees report trips in error-ridden tables printed in Congressional records. USA TODAY standardized and analyzed last year’s numbers to get a glimpse of the biggest spends.
Individual military branches collect detailed travel receipts for their delegations, but are reluctant to provide that information to the public. USA TODAY recently received a tranche of US Navy documents via the Freedom of Information Act covering travel from 2014 to 2016.
These itineraries include detailed dinner tabs and show members of Congress taking their spouses on many trips. Spouses reimburse the government for food, but not for shared hotels or military travel.
Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, who was chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee at the time, had the most expensive trip last year, based only on limited expense reports in congressional records.
In May, I visited Moldova, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Austria as part of the World Economic Forum in Davos. The US also sent a bipartisan delegation of eight senators and her 12 congressmen, each reporting their costs separately.
Meeks’ travel bill now exceeds $111,000.
Andrey Vasilescu, spokesman for the committee’s minority Democrats, said the trip was a complicated itinerary. He said costs increased after military planes were unable to transport members and they faced additional housing costs because of their location. Travel does not require public reporting of achievements.
“This visit was an important opportunity to speak with leaders about the global refugee crisis, food shortages and the activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” said Vasilescu.
Meeks was the most frequent member of the House of Commons in the last year, with trips to Poland, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ukraine, Belgium, Finland, Turkey and Greece.
Republican Senator Roy Brandt was the most frequent traveler three-quarters of last year, according to the latest data available. Budget, diplomatic and military committees often include frequent flyers.
Expense report wine bottle and Waikiki beach
Records obtained by USA TODAY show that in 2015, Sen. Lindsay Graham’s visit to Congress was thrown off course by a snowstorm, so she welcomed Senators Chris Coons and Mark Warner at Charleston’s upscale Magnolia restaurant and tipped them $100. I had a tab for $538.97 including. Graham’s staff say they have reimbursed the government for the three bottles of wine they drank.
Last week, Graham led a bipartisan group that hopped from Munich to Zambia, South Africa, Botswana and Morocco. The itinerary, obtained by news agency Punchbowl, shows Victoria Falls and time carved out for “conversation observation”, which appears to be a safari that calls for “rugged casual” attire.
At the 2016 Munich Security Conference, Senator John McCain led a 45-person delegation with a military dime that required two jets. The manifesto document included members of Congress, think tank leaders, foreign policy journalists and business leaders.
In 2015, Senator John Cornyn brought a group of the Senate Judiciary Committee to Hawaii. They enjoyed his $2,445 dinner at Honolulu’s Surf Lanai, which included seven bottles of wine and beer and margaritas. A Konin staff member declined to comment on the trip, but indicated per diems based on location and pointed to a rule whereby members would reimburse the government for alcohol.
In May of the same year, Republican Rep. Michael McCall took three lawmakers and their spouses and staff through Israel, Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Berlin and France. A spokeswoman defended the costs, noting the need to consider threats to the United States and efforts to combat terrorism abroad.
Leslie Shedd, a spokeswoman for the House Foreign Relations Committee, said in an email that the visit “provides important first-hand information to the vigorous oversight of Congressmen entrusted by the American people.” “This is doubly true for members of the National Security Council whose oversight authority extends to U.S. operations abroad.”
Pelosi’s Journey Shows Lack of Cost Transparency
Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the second most frequent flyer in Congress last year. This included her highly publicized trip to Taiwan in August, which drew criticism from Chinese authorities.
Pelosi flew from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei in a Boeing C-40C operated by the US Air Force. For other uses, the Air Force charges him about $8,000 an hour to operate his 737 jets. This flight made him one of the most tracked FlightRadar24 of all time.
Nevertheless, congressional records reflect only $283.67 in travel costs, not including military transport and other hidden costs. , Poland, Japan, Korea, Italy, Armenia, Croatia, and Egypt.
Pelosi’s communications staff did not answer questions about her trip.
Is a trip to Congress worth the money?
Excluding the two years of the pandemic, transportation costs in 2022 are about the average of the last decade.
Congressional travel costs soared to more than $19 million in 2016 when the new Republican-led Intelligence Committee attempted to hit the scene. Travel costs for the House Intelligence Committee nearly doubled to almost $2 million.
Colonel Nate Cook is a former Senate Liaison Officer in the U.S. Army who led trips to military installations around the world for Congress for three years before retiring in 2021. But he said business was running as normal during the pandemic, even without much congressional travel.
“COVID basically brought ground movement to a halt, but we still assigned the Army with no problem,” Cook said. “If we get things done without doing anything, does that mean we didn’t spend the money?”
Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter for the USA TODAY research team. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, @npenzenstadler, or Signal (720) 507-5273. Tom Vanden Brook has been in charge of the Department of Defense since 2006. Contact him at email@example.com.